Higher Education: The Not So Equal "Great Equalizer"
Education is supposed to be the “great equalizer.” It’s the key to social mobility: education is the tool that makes it possible for anyone, no matter their background or their socioeconomic status, to become anything they want to be and achieve anything they want to achieve. But like with most things in life, college as the tool for mobility and equality is more complicated than meets the eye. In more ways than one, college has been a contributor to the same inequality that it’s supposed to combat. Underlying structural issues, especially at selective schools, make it much more difficult for low-income students to gain access to and get through college, which leads to further inequality between low-income and high-income students.
College is a transformative experience, one in which students have the opportunity to open doors to their future. In today’s world, a degree is almost essential for people to make a comfortable living. Professionally, those who attend college have better career opportunities, more job safety and satisfaction, and higher income. Personally, college provides individuals with opportunities for personal development and networking. But at every stage of education, the economic and family situation of individuals plays far too great a role in determining the quality of education students receive.
In his book The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes Us or Breaks Us, Paul Tough describes college as a “system of economic mobility based on luck — whether it’s the luck of which family and which neighborhood you’re born into, or the luck of what a particular admissions officer happens to see in your application on a particular day — is a system that is hard to believe in.” Socioeconomic background plays a role in primary education: 40% of children living in poverty aren’t prepared for primary schooling. Family situations play a role in determining how likely students are to attend college: students of parents with degrees were 6.8 times more likely to go to university than those whose parents did not have degrees. And of course, income determines whether or not students can actually afford to pursue higher education. It’s no secret that college is expensive, and often, a high price tag means that low-income students often face crippling debt for years to come or sometimes choose to skip college altogether. Factors that are out of people’s hands play a large role in determining their future. Ultimately, high-income students are way more likely to attend college (especially selective schools). Right now, the student body at top colleges is overwhelmingly and disproportionately composed of high-income students. Low-income students? They’re much more of a rarity: for every 1 low-income student, there are 25 wealthy students (The Atlantic 2016), and high-income students are 8 times more likely to enroll in top schools than low-income students. Okay, this might make even a little more sense if most high-achieving high school students came from high-income backgrounds, but that’s simply not the case. Of all high-achieving graduating high school students, 17% come from the lowest socioeconomic quartile and 34% come from the top quartile.
Ideally, colleges can close this gap by admitting more low-income students and in the process, gain a positive reputation for investing in equity. But they probably won’t. Colleges want higher rankings, more money, a better reputation, and higher demand from students. Let’s say colleges decide to admit more be low-income students. They only have a certain amount of money, and they’re going to use a lot of it to provide financial aid. But when most of their students can afford to pay more tuition, they’re able to gain more money which they can use towards amenities and faculty. These investments are favored by students, which means that when colleges spend money on amenities and faculty as opposed to funding the education for low-income students, they’re able to meet their goals of increasing student demand, increasing rankings, and earning more money. The entire business model for colleges is set up in a way that colleges are actually incentivized to not invest in low-income students.
Public colleges are home to 80% of all college students and a significant amount of low-income students. They’re institutions created with the purpose of providing an affordable and quality education to the students in their state. But during the 2008 recession, governments cut back state funding for public colleges and left colleges to find ways to make up for revenue themselves. So, colleges raised prices substantially: the University of Arizona, for example, has raised tuition 81% since the 2008 recession. This increase in prices effectively transfers the burden of the cost of education from the state to the students, and low-income students are hit hardest. As mentioned earlier, colleges benefit from high-paying students. Public colleges realize this, which has given them a new priority: getting high-income and out-of-state college students to attend their universities. Some colleges have gone so far as to hire recruiters: not for athletes, but to search for and find wealthy students who can pay full tuition and for out-of-state students who will be paying higher tuition. One goal of public colleges is to be affordable, but their prices are increasing. Another goal is to prioritize state students of all backgrounds to ensure they have access to quality education, but colleges can end up prioritizing high-income and out-of-state students. The inadequate state funding of higher education makes the goal of providing all students with an affordable and quality education more elusive.
There’s no doubt that many low-income students have access to life-changing educational opportunities, but the opportunity to receive an education is not even close to equal when it's so heavily influenced by socioeconomic status. For many low-income students, the question seems to be one of whether or not they’ll go to college, but for high-income students, that question is most often replaced by certainty and the question to focus on is a question of where they’ll attend college. If education is how our society can and will achieve equality, should there be such a large gap of opportunity between low-income and high-income students? When the education system itself is perpetuating inequality and when the systems in place seem to favor high-income students every step of the way, how truly meritocratic is America?
There will need to be systemic reform of the higher education system in order to ensure that everyone, no matter what conditions they happen to be born into, is given the opportunity to advance themselves. In a meritocratic society, access to an affordable and quality education shouldn’t be a luxury for the few, but instead a right to all that want it. If this is the case, our country can become a much more equitable and meritocratic society.